New Biohazard Lab Opens at Kent State University

In an era when avian flu, anthrax, SARS, smallpox and other biological hazards have grabbed headlines, the public health work force that will fight those threats faces a loss of personnel.

An aging work force, early retirements and better salaries at private laboratories are expected to zap public health laboratories of many workers in the next five years, said Dr. Ed Thompson, chief of public health practice at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, demand for public lab services is heavier than ever.

That's why Wednesday's opening of Kent State University's new biosafety training laboratory was important enough to draw officials from the CDC, the Army Medical Research Institute and the Ohio Department of Health.

The lab will train students to handle dangerous biological threats such as smallpox, plague, anthrax, botulism and influenza.

The lab will not contain the pathogens, but rather similar biological agents that mimic their reactions.

The entire lab will be fitted with cameras, even on the microscopes, said Chris Woolverton, a researcher and faculty member of KSU's department of biological sciences. The video will be stored on a computer server so students can access their training via the Internet, as a way to brush up on their lessons.

The lab also will train workers from private and public labs throughout the region. Only one other school -- Emory University in the CDC's hometown, Atlanta -- has a training lab set up to teach students and lab workers how to handle such dangerous substances.

The 900-square-foot lab was paid for with a $698,000 CDC grant, which U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Navarre, helped secure.

During his tour of the facility, Regula said it would be difficult to get the grant approved in Congress' current climate, joking: "This is a piece of pork, theoretically."

"We have a different label for it," KSU President Carol A. Cartwright said. "Essential investment."

The lessons of the past few years -- from anthrax and smallpox scares and flu vaccine shortages -- have taught everyone in public health that emergency response is part of the mission, not an interruption, Thompson said. It's also clear that infectious diseases will always be part of public health work.

Public health is the first line of defense, he said. "There's nothing people can do to protect themselves," Thompson said. "They have to rely on us."

(c) 2005 Associated Press